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Net-Zero Public Schools, Homes in Haiti, Hospitals for a War Zone : A Look At Architecture's Shift to the Public Sphere

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In the last decade or so, architecture has undergone what is now a familiar renaissance: one defined by a surge of innovative, pragmatic projects designed to solve the problems of the public, perhaps even at the expense of design integrity. A shift like this—one that brings net-zero energy homes to low-income families in D.C., medical facilities to displaced people in Afghanistan, custom-designed homes to autistic adults, and infrastructure to marginalized groups like San Francisco's day laborers—inevitably raises important questions: why now? Why at all? And what does this all mean for the social impacts of the built environment of the future?

"The field has long wrestled with its elitism; books have been written, conferences staged, and museum exhibitions mounted around estimates that architecture and good design are accessible to only a select sliver of the population," wrote John Cary recently for the Good Magazine blog. "Yet architecture shapes everyone by creating the environments around us, impacting our collective quality of life."

"A pendulum swinging back and forth."

Architecture, like other creative fields, has segmented along theoretical lines drawn by the turmoil of the 20th century. And while aesthetics have ebbed and transformed, each artistic shift has played out in the foreground of a much grander tension, a theoretical fault line between what architect John Peterson calls "design progressives"—architects who see their roles as master craftsmen and devotees to the clarity of the design approach—and social progressives—architects who first and foremost define their roles as problem-solvers of some of the world's social ills.

To Peterson, founder and president of Public Architecture—a San Francisco-based group dedicated to bringing good design to those who may not otherwise have access to it—his profession is like "a pendulum swinging back and forth," revering pragmatic problem-solving in one decade, aesthetic and form the next, and then back again. Perhaps the clearest representation of this duplicity is seen in the United States of the 1960s and '70s, when Peterson says "there was a very strong belief in investing in social outcome, and then the retraction from that." He calls it "vestigial feedback," and it's the reason why he believes architecture in the last decade has undergone a shift away from the small subset of designers interested in building grandiose structures, turning instead to public service-based projects that attempt to alleviate messy social problems.

"The idea that things like social justice got in the way of the clarity of the design approach."

The shift began, according to Peterson, somewhere around the late 1990s, when there was a concern that the design-focused approach of the '80s and early '90s—a backlash against the socially progressive ideas of the '60s—swung the pendulum too far. "We were celebrating a limited number of the iconic designers. We were not focused on the broader questions of what design of the built environment impacts," he says. "I didn't come out of school with the intent to be engaged in social issues, in fact [...] I believed the idea that things like social justice got in the way of clarity of the design approach. That was a misguided idea."

So how does this latest batch of public-serving architects solve public problems? The answers are obvious: design can provide direct services (schools, hospitals, shelters) and increase quality of life (reducing crowds, creating community spaces, cleaning the environment). But, perhaps less discernibly, architecture can actually act as a sort of pressure valve for those complicated social issues once thought to conflict with design.

Addressing issues "not being identified as design problems."

Take, for example, Public Architecture's Day Labor Station (below) a flexible structure that serves as a meeting space or classroom for San Francisco's day laborers. Because they're employed informally and often on a job-by-job basis, this population often doesn't have a formal gathering space, meeting up on street corners and home improvement store parking lots instead.

Peterson, who worked on the project, says the idea was that an official structure would make the workers seem more legitimate and authoritative, which, in turn, could create jobs. "I thought there was an opportunity for the design of their environment to shift the significant issues that they were facing, things that were not being identified as design problems. They were being identified as very practical problems," Peterson says. "A lot of it is a shift of perception [of] those who use their services."

"The profession has done itself a disservice by alienating a certain sector of the population."

With its Open Hand Studio initiative, global architecture firm Cannon Design—most noted for its work in healthcare, science/technology, and education sectors—provides sustainable design for underserved, poorly funded groups. Revamping public schools in St. Louis, organizing volunteers to make home repairs for low-income seniors in Chicago, and building sustainable projects in a struggling enclave of Pittsburgh are all part of the firm's portfolio. When the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) approached the firm about designing medical centers in Afghanistan, Cannon Design took on the project, churning out designs for two hospitals (below) 80 miles outside of Kabul. The facilities—to be built in a country where there is approximately one hospital bed for every 2,400 people—includes space for emergency services, surgery, outpatient help, physical therapy, and a pharmacy.

Why would a successful firm dedicate resources to providing for the under-resourced? Ashley Marsh, a senior associate at Cannon Design, puts it simply: Open Hand Studio is "helping the firm not think so much about success as it relates to profit. Our reputation isn't driven by winning the best awards; it has something to do with how we're corporate citizens."

What's more, Marsh seems to think other gigantic firms are poised to take on public-oriented projects. "In my personal opinion, the profession has done itself a disservice by alienating a certain sector of the population. The profession as a whole has to move to a model where it serves a broader portion of the public as people." Without addressing everybody, architects risk seeming irrelevant, and the power of the built environment becomes diminished, she says.

"Architecture as a formal design process has to be married with engineering."

For other major firms, such as Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM), providing cutting-edge design to the public sector shows that innovative techniques don't need to be reserved for the nation's corporations and wealthiest citizens. That, at least, is the case for SOM's net-zero public school (below), which broke ground in NYC's Staten Island last October. P.S. 62, set to be one of the nation's first net-zero public buildings east of the Mississippi, is what SOM partner Roger Duffy calls "a paradigm-changing project."

"It's kind of like Neil Armstrong and the moon. Somebody did it first, and we wanted to do that," he says. "It was worth investing the firm's resources in something that's so profound." To be considered "net-zero," a building must produce or harvest every joule of energy it uses, a standard Duffy says is "much more hardcore" than, say, the standards set by LEED. SOM hopes the fact that the project is an urban elementary school will demonstrate that sustainable techniques are both attainable and worth investing in. To Duffy, this project is a look into the future of architecture, in which design melds with engineering.

"Architecture as a formal design process has to be married with engineering and even transcend engineering," he says. "Twenty years out, more buildings will be like this, [not just] statements of formal design." Somewhat appropriately, he calls the impending shift an "enlightenment."

"How many thousands of years were humans building things without architects?"

But service-oriented architecture does not necessarily depend on technological advancement and futuristic engineering; now, much like the 1960s, many building projects are spearheaded without any formally trained architects at all. Upon reading about the collapsed buildings, crowded hospitals, and abject poverty that plundered Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, artists Cassandra Curry and Ben Wolf hit the books, looking for a building method that was cheap, sustainable, and unlikely to collapse in the event of another shift in tectonic plates. They discovered the so-called Super Adobe Method, in which polypropylene bags are filled with dirt and cement and stacked up to make a rounded, resilient structure (below). It was a relatively simple process, and the Konbit Shelter group took only 10 weeks to build its first community center. "We learned straight from a book," says KT Tierney, the project's technical director. "How many thousands of years were humans building things without architects?"

"I'm never going to be an architect. I'm never going to put the time in," Tierney says. "[Architecture] is definitely shifting, and hopefully [in the future] engineers and architects will use their credentials more for these kinds of collaborations." Undertakings like these, perhaps, are the most extreme examples of architecture favoring practicality over artistry. These kind of projects may lead to another theoretical backlash; in a decade, architects may miss the artistry and ultimately eschew social progressivism in favor of design progressivism.

"Can we hold onto those larger design and social impacts and incorporate craft?"

All this talk of discipline-wide change and the common good evokes a few huge questions: shouldn't exceptional architecture always embrace art/intellect and pragmatics? Why is there a duality at all? Well, Peterson hopes the next time the pendulum swings, designers will be able maintain their desire to provide for the public, a profession-wide goal that, for now, is widely taught. "Students coming out of school now are really focused on these bigger issues, which is wonderful, but I think unfortunately this may be at the price of craft," Peterson says. "I think there are going to people that feel that loss, and there's going to be a resurgence of interest in the designer as a master craftsperson. Now [can] we hold onto those larger design and social impacts and incorporate craft? That's going to be a big question. But I'm enthusiastic that that's what we're going to find."

· Why 'The Death of Architecture' May Not Be Such a Bad Thing [Good]
· All Thinking Big posts [Curbed National]